Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
The Lithuanian Army

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2021

Soviet rule came to Lithuania swiftly and rather unpleasantly. Within days of the Red Army’s 15 June 1940 entry into Lithuania, all political, religious and social organizations other than the tiny Lithuanian Communist Party had been banned. The leaders of the opposition Christian Democrats and Peasants Popular Union found themselves arrested as enemies of the people right alongside the government ministers who they had hoped to supplant as a result of the crisis.

The Lithuanian Army offered no resistance. At the time of the invasion, it stood at a cadre strength of roughly 21,000 enlisted men and 1,600 officers, with an organizational structure to accommodate about twice that many troops. Another 3,500 men served in the militarized border guard. Up to 17,000 men were drafted each year, which still gave Lithuania a lower percentage (1.25 percent) of its population under arms than its larger neighbors; that still should have yielded up to 250,000 trained men who could be mobilized. Instead, thanks to financial limits mobilization plans called for a maximum strength of about half that number.

Lithuania fielded three infantry divisions, each of three regiments, and each of those of three battalions. A Lithuanian infantry battalion had three rifle companies and one machine-gun company. A fourth division had begun formation in 1939, but only its artillery regiment (attached to First Division) existed other than on paper.

A cavalry brigade, a battalion-sized armored detachment, two pioneer battalions, a bicycle battalion and a battalion of heavy artillery rounded out the field forces. The Cavalry Brigade, considered the army’s elite formation, had three regiments (named the Dragoon, Uhlan and Hussar Regiments), each of four mounted squadrons and one machine-gun squadron plus a battalion-sized horse artillery group.

A Lithuanian machine-gunner with his weapon.

Each Lithuanian division had an artillery regiment except for the 1st Division, which had two of them. A Lithuanian artillery regiment had three battalions, two of them with the ubiquitous French-made 75mm Model 1897 light field gun, and the third with a dozen French Schneider 105mm howitzers. The horse artillery fielded the Russian-made 76.2mm Model 1902 field gun.

In time of war, the units would be fleshed out not with reservists, but members of the “Rifle Association,” a supposedly private club controlled by the Ministry of Defense. The sophistry helped hide the full expense of Lithuania’s military establishment, but would have been extremely inefficient in a rapid mobilization.

That mobilization never came. Despite months of tension, the Lithuanian Army did not call the riflemen into active service, and Army commander Vincas Vitkauscas urged the government against armed resistance. Ordered to prepare plans for defense, Vitkauscas dusted off the old Plan L for resistance to a Polish invasion and re-named it Plan R.

On 2 July the new People’s Government ordered the Lithuanian Army reformed into the People’s Army of Lithuania. Vitkauskas, who had been demoted in 1921 due to “Bolshevik sympathies” but later rose to the top of the small army hierarchy with a reputation for efficiency and even brilliance in the area of infantry tactics, remained as its commander as other generals and officers were purged and some deported to Siberia. The Lithuanian Army under Vitkauskas and his predecessor, Stasys Rastikas (who served as his deputy commander), had eschewed politics and tried to stay distinct from the ruling Lithuanian National Union. Officers had been discouraged from taking political stances, but now those affiliated with the National Union lost their positions.

Vickers 4-ton tanks in Lithuanian service.

Lithuania formally joined the Soviet Union on 3 August 1940, with Vitkauskas - now holding the Defense Ministry portfolio as well as that of army commander - among the delegation presenting the petition to the Supreme Soviet. He was one of four Lithuanian leaders invited to meet with Stalin himself, and he also visited with Commissar of Defense Semyon Timoshenko to prepare to integrate the Lithuanian People’s Army into the Red Army.

That order came on 17 August, with the People’s Army becoming the 29th Rifle Corps, with Vitkauskas, now a Red Army lieutenant general, as its commander. By this point half of the old army’s generals, 30 percent of its mid-ranking officers and 15 percent of its junior officers had been purged; many of the enlisted had simply deserted. While Vitkauskas was view by many as a toady and a traitor, he also assured that the old army’s archives were destroyed rather than handed over to the Soviets, impeding the arrest of former Lithuanian officers.

The new corps had two rifle divisions, the 179th and 184th. The cavalry regiments were dismounted and the men dispersed among the three rifle regiments of the 179th Rifle Division, which also received five of the nine Lithuanian infantry regiments with the other four going to its sister division. Neither division reached full strength until drafts of Russian conscripts from the Moscow Military District were added to bring up overall numbers and reduce the Lithuanian proportion of the troops.

The two divisions continued to wear Lithuanian Army uniforms, with Red Army insignia sewn on them and Red Army ranks replacing the old Lithuanian system. They retained their Lithuanian weapons and artillery, including their French-made artillery and Czech-produced Mauser rifles and Praga light machine guns.

Lithuanian People's Army sergeants are informed that they will be joining the glorious Red Army (the grinning fool without shoulder tabs is a commissar).

In late May 1941, the prospect of war with Germany brought further crackdowns in Lithuania, including the 29th Rifle Corps. Over 27,000 Lithuanians were deported, either to Siberia or re-education camps.

On 3 June, Vitkauscas was re-assigned to teach infantry tactics at the General Staff academy in Moscow, and other Lithuanian senior officers were replaced with ethnic Russians as well. The precautions didn’t help very much; when the Germans invaded on 22 June, most of the 29th Rifle Corps’ Lithuanian rank and file deserted with many of them joining the June Uprising against Soviet rule.

The Lithuanian Activist Front organized attacks against the Soviet garrisons in Kaunas and Vilnius. The uprising in Kaunas - mostly undertaken by former Lithuanian Army soldiers - drove out the Soviet 188th Rifle Division and secured the city before the first German units arrived. The Vilnius uprising was much smaller, as most city residents were Poles, but deserting soldiers from the 29th Rifle Corps helped secure the city’s radio station and government buildings.

The 184th Rifle Division quickly collapsed with at least 7,000 Lithuanians deserting its ranks. The 179th Rifle Division retreated, with its Lithuanian element mutinying on 27th June leading to close-quarters firefights between ethnic Lithuanian and ethnic Russian troops. The newly-declared Lithuanian Provisional Government intended to form a new Lithuanian Army based on these troops, but the government was disbanded by the Germans before any steps had been taken. The soldiers were inducted into German-sponsored police battalions and assigned to round up Jews and other undesirables.

In our Panzer Grenadier: Lithuania’s Iron Wolves, the fourth chapter sends the Lithuanian Army against Soviets in June 1941.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects. People are saying that a few of them were actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold believes himself an iron wolf.